Mississippi’s Arizona-style “religious freedom” bill, an attempt by lawmakers to make it legal for businesses to refuse customers based on “sincerely held religious beliefs,” was approved by the state House and Senate last night.
With just 72 hours left on the legislative calender, Mississippi lawmakers rushed through their debates and approved the bill by wide majorities. The Mississippi House passed the bill with a 79-43 vote, and the Senate the vote was 37-14. The bill is expected to be signed into law by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, according to JoeMyGod.
UPDATE: Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant has signed the bill into law on Thursday, read more here.
Several lawmakers questioned the bill’s sponsoring lawmakers in both chambers, arguing that the bill could lead to discrimination against LGBT people and others.
Sen. Derrick Simmons, a Democrat who has been outspoken in his opposition to the ‘religious freedom’ legislation, urged his colleagues to vote no during last night’s Senate debate, saying, “I urge you not to legalize discrimination in the State of Mississippi.”
“I believe certainly by the way that this bill is drafted that it will allow discrimination in Mississippi,” Simmons said. “There is nothing in the proposed legislation that prohibits that.”
As it is written, Senate Bill 2681 — or the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act — largely mirrors the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and other bills passed in 18 states that mirror the federal law, except for language that prevents employees of private businesses from raising legal claims against those employees under the bill. Proponent lawmakers say the bill will protect state citizens’ free exercise of religion from government intrusion, while some lawmakers in both chambers questioned whether it would have unintended consequences — including permitting discrimination.
A group of legal scholars opposing the bill wrote to Mississippi legislators in March, arguing that in light of recent court decisions, laws designed to defend religious freedom and seemingly neutral in intent could be used to undermine protections against discrimination. “Twenty years ago, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act might have been less fraught with legal and policy peril,” they wrote. “Now, when it will most likely be both seen and used as a shield against enforcement of civil rights laws (current and future), enacting it seems like a uniquely poor idea.”
The ACLU issued the following press release:
The law could allow individuals and businesses to bring challenges against what they view as substantial government burdens against religion, including challenging existing nondiscrimination laws. Legislatures across the country, including in Georgia, Idaho, Maine, and Ohio, have rejected similar measures. On February 26, 2014, Governor Jan Brewer vetoed Arizona’s version. Bills are still pending in Missouri and Oklahoma. “Even though the Mississippi legislature removed some of the egregious language from Arizona’s infamous SB 1062, we are disappointed that it passed this unnecessary law and ignored the national, public outcry against laws of this nature,” said Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel with the ACLU. “We will continue to fight in state legislatures across the country to ensure that religious freedom remains a shield, not a sword.”
The Human Rights Campaign issued this statement:
While efforts had previously been made to allay concerns about the scope and breadth of the legislation, the version passed tonight is far-reaching and should be vetoed by the governor. Human Rights Campaign (HRC) State Legislative Director Sarah Warbelow issued the following statement: “While there were many efforts to correct the clearly problematic elements of this legislation, the bill still has the effect of making LGBT people strangers to the law. Before Mississippi has had the opportunity to robustly discuss the lived experiences of LGBT people, this bill would hollow out any non-discrimination protections at the local level or possible future state-wide protections. Just as we’ve seen in other states, this bill is bad for business, bad for the state’s reputation, and most of all, bad for Mississippians. Governor Bryant must veto the measure.”
Mississippi state senator Derrick Simmons fired off the following tweet in opposition to the bill:
“Senate Bill 2681 would promote discrimination against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals and families in Mississippi,” the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, said in a statement Tuesday morning. “As a minister, it’s clear that this extreme bill is about legalizing discrimination, not protecting religious freedom. Furthermore the broad implications of this bill could result in discrimination aimed toward many communities.”
Mississippi currently has no state laws barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
In addition to provisions for religious protections, the bill calls for the addition of “In God We Trust” to the state’s seal,